Our Towns; Latvian Jews And Hosts Trade 2 Kinds of Riches

In 1947 Steven Springenfeld, a Jew, left Riga, Latvia, for America. “I made a resolve never to go back,” he says. He had survived four years in Nazi camps, a year in a Soviet prison. As with most Riga Jews, his family and their things were turned to ash.

He settled in Queens, became Steve Springfield, worked two jobs and opened Springfield Curtains and Linens, expanding to four convenient locations.

Forty years passed. Gorbachev opened the Soviet Union. Mr. Springfield returned to Riga as a tourist last fall. It was astounding for him, like revisiting a nightmare by the light of day. The spookiest was the Jewish school he had attended in the 1930’s. In that same building, now crumbling, a new Jewish School had opened, on Sept. 1, 1989. Judaism was repressed so long that the founders expected 100 students; 500 applied. Hebrew is taught by a man in his 70’s who learned before the War, and by two younger men, who learned in secret. At the school Mr. Springfield heard the Kinnor Jewish Children’s Choir perform. He was so moved that he vowed to bring them to America, for others to see the miraculous rebirth.

Last week, 29 Riga teen-agers arrived for the first stop of a month-long concert tour in Great Neck, a suburb so wealthy that it would awe many Americans, let alone children who had to be shown how to use a shower. The first night, when Rebecca Gilliar, a host parent, asked what her visitor wanted for a gift, the girl asked for a copy of National Geographic.

Between concerts, hosts showed off America. “We took them to Food Emporium,” said Matthew Minzer. “They’d never seen a lobster! Can you imagine? I took them to the Jewish aisle. Memorial candles, matzoh ball mix, sponge cake. We told them in America Jewish people have a place to purchase openly!”

Most of the guests don’t speak English and had expected to speak to American Jews in Hebrew or Yiddish. “I told them the only Yiddish I heard was when my parents didn’t want me to know what was going on,” said Stuart Lubert, president of Temple Beth-El Brotherhood. Hebrew? “I said, ‘Don’t know it, we just pray in it.’ ”

Saturday, they had planned to go to a bar mitzvah. “But they really don’t have fancy clothes,” said Mr. Minzer. “If they went in Latvian dungarees, they might feel embarrassed.” Instead, they were given a whirlwind shopping tour, with merchants donating gifts and meals.

“They’re eating our famous assorted basket right now,” said Joel Goldberg of Bruce’s. “Mini-eggrolls, mini-onions, assorted mini-muffins, fresh danish.” The hosts wanted to expose them to as much as possible. At 10:30 they finished breakfast and by 11:45 they were being led into Millie’s for lunch. “They’re showing great gumption to be able to eat like this,” said Mr. Goldberg.

“Another falafel sandwich for this man from Riga,” a Millie’s waiter called out.

Fortunately they were young, had strong legs and were able to keep up with Great Neck shoppers. They’d never seen anything as advanced as Legstasy Fine Socks, a store specializing in socks. Ivar Brod, a chaperone, who is chief of a Riga biochemistry institute, explained that though his salary is above average, his daughter has maybe five pairs of socks because goods are scarce. Before he could finish his story, they were rushed to Tennis Junction for more socks. At B. Dalton’s, Mr. Brod searched for the English to express his feelings. “We haven’t so easy to books,” he said and went off to see. Paola Moeller admired the finely reproduced photos in “Elvis the King Lives.”

Slowly they picked up essential American phrases. At Perfumerie Douglas, Semyon Vinogradov shouted, “Christian Dior!” At Camp and Campus, Cari Wolf, a clerk, tried to explain how American girls can spend a fortune and look like they’re wearing their father’s clothes. “That’s sweet,” said Mrs. Gilliar. “They’re learning about oversized clothes.”

Mr. Springfield, who is president of Jewish Survivors of Latvia, skipped the shopping tour. He didn’t fully approve. “I’m not sure it’s good for them to be exposed to this,” he said. “I don’t know how it will change them.”

Later, he watched the children rehearse at Temple Beth-El, a lovely modern building that takes up a block. The lead singer is 12-year-old Albert Nidel. His father was chief rabbi of Riga, but died last year and there is no one to take his place. “They make do without a rabbi,” said Mr. Springfield. The boy began to sing in Hebrew, a song of peace. He had a voice like an angel and was wearing a Wilson sweatshirt and Mr. Springfield was reminded that even after 50 years, the most extraordinary life could rise from the ash in a form no one could control.


Related Articles

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.

Archive Search

Search the world's largest online archive of material about Jewish diversity.